Growing up, I was enamored with the classic movies and shows of Disney. I'm not just talking about the animated feats of films like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella; I'm also talking about all the live-action fare -- the original Mickey Mouse Club and flicks like The Parent Trap, Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Summer Magic, and of course, Babes in Toyland -- the Disney remake of Victor Herbert's operetta and the Laurel and Hardy version in 1934. Now this flick wasn't a total Christmas movie, but considering the fact that part of it concerns making toys in Toyland for Christmas, it always rested in my collection of Santa flicks that were pulled out every year.
It was the 1960s, and Babes in Toyland dealt with a fantasy land where fairy tales and children's rhymes came to life, and inventions followed one's imagination, rather than scientific law. In this world, some people live in shoes, Little Bo Peep tends to her sheep, and Jack likes jumping over his candlestick. Mary Contrary (Annette Funicello) and Tom Piper (Tommy Sands) are two young "lovers" about to get married, although they haven't even shared a kiss. Every time Tom tries, Mary diverts his lippy attention, whether with a subtle turn of the head, or a...carnation? Nevertheless, this couple is to be married the next day. However, up on the hill in a sinister old house lives Barnaby (Ray Bolger), a man in love with money who plots to marry Mary himself and claim her estate. He hires Roderigo (Gene Sheldon) and Gonzorgo (Henry Calvin) to do his dirty work. The plan is to steal Bo Peep's sheep, so that the family loses their source of income, steal Tom, and throw him into the sea so that Barnaby can sweep in to save the day and marry Mary. But Gonzorgo has the bright idea to make money twice. Instead of drowning Tom at sea, they'll sell him to the gypsies and get paid twice for the kidnapping.
Perhaps if they picked gypsies really far away, this would've been a good plan, but the gypsy camp lies just around the corner from Tom's home, and in no time, he's back, reunited with Mary. Unfortunately, that's only the start of things -- Bo Peep and the other kids went into the Forest of No Return to find her lost sheep. Tom and Mary chase after them, leading the group, and the sinister baddies who follow, straight to Toyland, where the spastic head Toymaker (Ed Wynn) and his faithful assistant Grumio (Tommy Kirk) live and work.
From a child's perspective, there's really nothing wrong with the film -- at least, for those kids that can get into some amusingly bad special effects and retro quirk. It's got goofy characters, some catchy songs, and enough fantasy to keep things interesting. But the film always had a spark missing -- it never did as well as Disney hoped, and not nearly as well as its musical predecessor, Mary Poppins. Yet it still had that charm. Unfortunately it also had that dated, non-PC attitude -- mostly in regards to women. When she thinks Tom is dead, Mary gets a whole solo where she sings about how she's too dumb to do math and get herself out of debt with an updated version of Herbert's "I Can't Do the Sum." It's also strange when Mary hides while watching a certain miniature lover fight a full-sized man, rather than help out. It's as if she's too fragile or feeble to do any good. However, it is nice to see her make the best shot later.
Luckily, the supporting cast makes the movie. For supposedly-stunning stars, both Sands and Funicello are pretty bland, but things kick into high gear with Bolger's sinister ways, the bumbling camaraderie of Gonzorgo and Roderigo, and the sassy ego of the Toymaker and his more-talented subordinate. For Barnaby, he might seem goofy, but somehow, he pulls off a pair of heeled, men's shoes like Tom Cruise never could. Even better are Calvin and Sheldon, who pulled off the same spokesman/mute gig in the Disney television show Zorro as Sgt. Demetrio Lopez Garcia and Bernardo. And finally, there's so much that could be said for the late and wonderful Ed Wynn -- whether you love his jerky Toymaker, his Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins, or his voice as the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. He's just the right level of strange to pull of a character who makes his living holed up in a secret town building toys. As for the kids, you might see the older face of Ann Jillian in Bo Peep, or recognize Kevin Corcoran of Old Yeller fame.
Yet this sea of toys and colorful characters, on a painted stage, that at times seemed much bigger than it actually was, couldn't make Babes in Toyland soar. Instead, it just sort of exists. It didn't flop, and it didn't break the box office -- it doesn't infuriate, but it doesn't create awe either. And when Tom and Mary sail off into the snowy sunset well before Sandy and Danny did, you know they didn't travel too far. Nonetheless, there is something to the film, one that makes it a nice, pulpy side to the barrage of "ho-ho-ho" and standard Christmas fare.